Enter the Glossators

While I was in Canada I got an email from Agnes who is finishing the writing part of her PhD. After some kind words about the blog she got down to business:

“… I have a question to you that I could not find an answer to elsewhere. I am now writing up my PhD work and organising the ‘front matter’ section as well. Some of the theses and articles I have seen included a glossary in the front matter. These concise descriptions of the main terms of the piece always seemed so smart and put together; a sign that the authors knew exactly what and how they wanted to communicate.

I know that a glossary should include the most important terms and phrases used in an alphabetical order, especially if they are used in an unusual way. But I have not found any strategic guidelines on how to do it well, or whether it is really a good idea to write it at all…”

I was travelling and only responding to urgent messages, so I filed Agnes’s message in Omnifocus and promptly forgot about it until it appeared on my to do list yesterday. I thought answering this email would be simple. I went straight to my favourite blogs on writing – Patter, Explorations in Style and Doctoral Writing Sig. None of them had anything specific on glossaries, so I did some Googling. Agnes was right – lots of descriptions of glossaries, but no ‘how to’.

Frustrated now, I went to my bookshelf which is bulging with just about every book you can imagine on writing. Here, take a look:

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 11.08.18 AM
The top shelf of both cases is just books on academic writing. While I have some favourites, to be honest, I’ve never read most of them. I buy these kinds of books on the assumption that a day – perhaps a day just like this – they will have the answer I need. Unfortunately my books only had cursory mentions of the glossary, no deep treatment of the topic. Yes, a glossary should contain key terms. Yes, a glossary should be alphabetical. But the books were mute on the rhetorical purpose of the glossary as Agnes had requested. By rhetorical I mean a glossary is meant to affect the reader – to leave them with the impression that a knowledgeable, competent scholar is in charge.
Clearly I was going to have to attempt something new. Time to really get my nerd on. I went back to first principles and asked myself some research questions: What is a glossary? Where did it come from? What did the first ones look like? I Google searched the origin of the word which confirmed my suspicions – it was Latin, but also late Middle English:
Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 10.41.08 AM
Interesting. The glossary was clearly older than I thought. I went to the bookshelf I have devoted to university history and the index of “A history of the university in Europe Volume One: universities in the middle ages” had 13 mentions of various forms of glossary. Pay dirt!
Briefly, a gloss is an annotation or brief note about the meaning of a word in a text. Back in ye olde days of academia parchment was made of animal hide (very expensive to produce) and writing was laborious. A book could cost as much as a house and were often chained to the shelf the way that expensive leather jackets are in clothing stores to prevent theft.
In this early academic culture, summarising and summaries took on a life and importance that is hard for us to imagine now. Glosses were essentially the academic blog posts of their day – short, easily accessible, approachable translations of much longer, denser and harder to find texts.
It was in Law scholarship that glosses took on special significance and sophistication, As Antonio Garcia y Garcia put it:
“… this [law] literature began with mere interlinear or marginal glosses elucidating the meaning of words, and in its final stage produced great critical apparatuses or commentaries, consisting of extensive and continuous glosses on an entire collection of laws, which strive to capture not only the meaning of each word but the sense of the [original] text and the legislator’s intention”
Apparently the people who put together these epic collections of glosses were called ‘glossators’. I immediately thought of this:
Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 11.31.56 AM
Ahem, anyway – where was I? That’s right, I wanted to help Agnes? From my reading and research I can now argue that a glossary is a collection of key terms that you use in your thesis, summarised for the reader so as to make your text more accessible, approachable and authoritative. Here’s a step by step to producing one.
Step one:
Decide if you need a glossary or not. I would argue that you only need one if it’s going to be of genuine use to the reader. Start by asking yourself a series of questions:
  • Are you using a lot of terms not common in your field or area?
  • Is your project cross disciplinary in flavour? Do you import concepts or methods from elsewhere?
  • Are you using multiple terms or phrases to mean similar things?
  • Are some phrases or terms very similar in spelling and/or construction and thus potentially confusing?
  • Are you using a large number of acronyms?
  • Are there places, people or things that reoccur and need to be explained (remember, you can include different kinds of glossaries for this – for instance, a biographical index or list of places)

If you answered ‘yes’ to most of these questions your thesis would benefit from a glossary.

Step two:
Selection of terms is critical. A glossary should demystify terms for the reader, not state the obvious. If you put a whole bunch of common terms there your reader will feel like you are talking down to them. It’s vitally important to realise that you are not the best person to identify what needs to go in the glossary. You are suffering from the Curse of Knowledge – you don’t know what it’s like not to know what you know. So ask a colleague or fellow student (not your supervisor – they have the curse of knowledge as well) to read your whole text and underline words they don’t immediately know. This will give you a starter list, but it is clearly a big ask. You could offer to do this for another PhD student and swap texts.
Step Three:
Reach a bit further for terms to include by thinking very carefully about your potential ‘cross over’ readership. Agnes will definitely need to do this step as she is working in a cross disciplinary project. One way to do this is to work on defining the audience for the writing. I find a Venn diagram helpful. Here’s one of the possible audiences for my thesis (which was about how architects used hand gestures when they were teaching students in case you were wondering):
Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 1.31.44 PMThis list starts me thinking about who might have a need of the glossary and what they need it for. Could I have more than one glossary? I wrote two literature reviews to accomodate my different readers, perhaps I could have made two glossaries as well?
Step Four:
Start generating a list of terms which each audience will be familiar with and ones that they wont. Here’s a table I generated to help me in this thinking process:
Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 1.35.17 PMYou can see that some terms are cross overs, others might be unfamiliar to all. The table is just a tool to help you brainstorm in a structured way. Again I suggest you will need to sanity check this list with someone who is not suffering from the curse of knowledge.
Step Five:
Where would the glossary go? I would suggest that it will depend a bit on length. Shorter glossaries can go at the start, really long ones might be an appendix, or a combination of both. Be creative! Your readers will thank you.
So there you are Agnes – and anyone else who might need to find their inner glossatator I hope that helps. If you have suggestions or refinements, I’d love to hear them in the comments. And hey – if your skills of Google are better than mine and you found the blog post I was looking for let me know. Any other questions like this? Please send them through. I love it when someone hands me such perfect blog fodder!
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18 thoughts on “Enter the Glossators

  1. Ah! This was very helpful. I had asked my dissertation chair if it was necessary, And the response was something like, “maybe. it depends..” I don’t think I ever had more detail. I like your point about working on a cross disciplinary project. That’s where I see the need, in my case. I’ve completed my first 3 chapters, and I realize that some committee questions were a clarification of terms across disciplines. Thanks for putting this together

  2. And another thank you! I am using Foucauldian terms in very specific ways – which I have outlined in Chapter 2 – now at my analyses in Chapter 6 I felt like I was going to have to redefine and rediscuss … I may turn my glossator on today.
    What a wonderful support you are Whisperer – thank you!

    • I like that – if you start early then you’re essentially taking a snapshot of your thinking at a specific point in time. So as you read further and your thinking evolves, you can go back and see where and why and how much it’s evolved, rather than just having a vague feeling and wondering if those possible shifts will lead to inconsistencies in your chapters.

      Great post, as always Inger! 🙂

  3. I put a glossary in my most recent book (it’s on blended course design, so pretty practically-oriented) and it was a great jumping off point for the indexing when I got to that stage!

  4. The alternative implication of a number of ‘Yes’ results at Step 1 is that perhaps you need to copy-edit. There are certainly times where a glossary is useful – particularly for a non-specialist audience, but if you rely on the glossary to clarify that you’re using different terms to mean the same thing (for example) it’s possible that you’ve just over-complicated your text.

  5. Three points: first, a glossary of technical as well as political terms is a sound idea – the latter may have quite unique twists of meaning. Second, a list of acronyms is a good idea because we live in a world of increasing acronym-gobbledygook. Third, commonly used phrases deriving from indigenous peoples should also be included. What I wonder is whether or not the three could or should be blended? What do you think?

    • I absolutely agree and I always encourage candidates to generate separate lists. (Mine was a loosely phrased rhetorical question for everyone rather than a specific question for you, Inger – sorry about that.)

  6. I started a glossary and an acronyms list on day 1 of my PhD and have been updating it as i go along. For the glossary, i would cut and paste nifty definitions written by others and make a note of the source. In the end, where i had more than one definition of a key term, i would meld the useful parts into my own definition – this was also often what i had already discussed in my literature review chapter and my ‘definition of key terms’ discussion in my methodology. As such, my glossary became a quick reference for the reader about how i was using specific terms within my text.

    As for the acronyms list, i just kept a note of absolutely every acronym i ever came across, then just culled the ones i didn’t end up using in the text. A little bit of forward planning saved me a lot of time in the end.

  7. I’m in STEM, where glossaries aren’t very common; instead we have a ‘list of symbols’ or ‘nomenclature table’ that lists the meaning of the symbols used in mathematical equations.
    It won’t tell you that ‘+’ means ‘addition’, but it will tell you that ‘d’ means ‘displacement’ and ‘P’ means force for example.
    Nomenclature tables are not just for theses, but also for papers, and I find them very useful. You never now which equations the reader is already familiar with. There have been plenty of times where I have cursed authors for omitting a table, while I hunted through the paper looking for that one sentence 10 pages back where they defined a specific symbol.

    What I’ve also noticed in my literature review is that there are sometimes subtle, and often implict, differences in how certain terms are defined and used. Writing a glossary can help make these differences explicit, and show how you interpret certain concepts.

  8. Excellent post and advice! I struggled with this one too — lots of German-language terms and acronyms. I started off with the intention of having a glossary and even built up a spreadsheet during the research. But it was difficult to know what should/shouldn’t be included. In the end, I explained the translations/terminology in the main text (and the occasional footnote) and asked a non-expert reader to read the draft. Surprisingly, only a couple of clarifications were needed. So no glossary was included in the final version and it felt more streamlined as a result. The only downside was explaining to the Mr GLH that all his typing up was no longer required!

  9. Oh, lovely Thesis Whisperer, I have a question for you. Have you ever had a post on here about getting along with tough colleagues in the PhD? I had a search but couldn’t find what I was looking for; there’s plenty on tough supervisors. It may be less important in the humanities, but in my lab my desk and equipment are next to those of a person I find it really hard to deal with. I’m sure I contribute a large amount to the disagreement too (personality clash), but I’m not making it up that she’s ‘difficult’ – she’s extremely emotionally immature, can be aggressive or extremely passive aggressive, lies to get her way and discredit people, and is racist, which I will never stand for (also I’m international, so…). (I bet she’ll make a great supervisor some day – snark.) I can’t move for at least a couple of months due to strategic reasons, but I definitely plan on moving, whether or not other people think it’s a good idea. I want to enjoy my PhD again.

  10. Pingback: Enter the Glossators: how to create a glossary ...

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